Bruce Springsteen High Hopes [Columbia] -
Let's get real: in the lexicon of rock'n'roll heroes, Bruce Springsteen is nothing less than a sacred cow, much like Dylan or U2 - which is to say, critics have long since abandoned the concept of "objective assessment" when it comes to reviewing their recorded output. This glaring presupposition became apparent when Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere" (the lead single from Magic, which so blatantly ripped off Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 Jenny" songwriters Alex Call and Jim Keller should've sued for co-writing credit) won not one, but two Grammy awards back in 2008.
Subsequent recordings Working On A Dream (2009) and Wrecking Ball (2012) found The Boss ruminating on the loss of the American Dream, wearing his weary heart on it's sleeve, with the latter's proletarian manifesto set to teasing, trip-hop beats and the machine-gun solos provided by new friend (and comrade-in-arms) Tom "Rage Against The Machine" Morello. But that didn't stop tunes like "We Take Care Of Our Own" and "Land Of Hope And Dreams" from sounding forced and more than a tad didactic. Where John Mellencamp traffics in subtleties, Springsteen levels you with a sledgehammer. It's hard to fault a guy who's so achingly sincere, you want to join his revolution, yet there's this underlying subtext that Springsteen might secretly worry about relevance in an ever-changing musical landscape - hence the continued affiliation with producer Brendan O'Brien, and his flirtation with a larger, more contemporary sound.
Morello's back, and while not exactly taking over the helm as artistic director, RATM fans will have no trouble recognizing his solos on the similarly-themed High Hopes. Things kick off nicely with the Zydeco-laced overtones of the title track, where Springsteen sings the plight of working mothers and young soldiers alike. The tribal percussion, animated accordion and gospel-flavored backing singers actually complement Springsteen's bluesy sneer and brittle lyricism: "They're gonna smother love, they're gonna shoot your hopes/Before the meek inherit they'll learn to hate themselves/Give me help, give me strength..."
But then he follows it up with the awkward, 80's-throwback vibe of "Harry's House." The momentarily startling F-bombs he tosses out in the second verse would carry a lot more weight if Springsteen didn't sound like he was channelling Mark Knopfler, circa "Money For Nothing." And there folks lies the inherent dilemma of High Hopes: it wants to sound instantaneously accessible and familiar on contact, but also wants to be taken seriously (as in, added to the playlists) on contemporary radio stations catering to the likes of KT Turnstall or Queens of the Stone Age, not subjected to patronization on classic rock stations playing a "three-fer."
Nothing wrong with wanting to have it both ways exactly, but that's a delicate balance which requires finessing, as well as some real sonic challenges for the listener. Morello's licks definitely provide heft and urgency here, as on the mid-tempo rock of "Frankie Fell In Love" or the absolute riff-shredding he displays on the revisited "American Skin (41 Shots)" - though why in the world would you not consider updating the lyrics, telling the story of Trayvon Martin's senseless death (which touched off a debate still fresh in our national consciousness) instead of retelling the Amadou Diallo story? This song could've been a true collaboration, with Morello recruiting former bandmate Zach de la Rocha to provide some caustic commentary that's sorely missing here. And excuse me, but isn't that opening riff on "Just Like Fire Would" sorta reminiscent of Mellencamp's "Small Town"? You know you've been exposed when someone quotes a lyric from the latter in the comments section of your Soundcloud page.
Springsteen has been many things, but up until this disc, half-assed didn't seem to be one of them. What does it say when Paul McCartney drops a more contemporary, dare-I-say hipper album than yours (the unexpectedly brilliant New)? For that matter, why the heck were some tracks previewed in an episode of the CBS drama, The Good Wife, and debuted on the network's website? Aren't they owned by the same corporation as your record label? Isn't that tantamount to colluding with "the man"? What's the point of only working with Morello to exploit his signature sound, and not soliciting the poetic soul that made RATM a voice of social conscience and protest? It's not as if there aren't many pressing issues of our time (xenophobia, corporate carpetbagging, oppressive religious zealotry, human rights atrocities) you and de la Rocha might've spoken to, instead of keeping things vague and non-threatening. And even if there's a fine line between preaching and preachy, I wish Springsteen had taken the gamble anyway. You could've made this album a stripped-down, folk companion to Nebraska, or a modern rock paean, á la The Battle Of Los Angeles - instead we get a average collection of tunes cobbled together under the guise of an album. Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss. Grade: B